Some are lauding the Tokyo Olympics as the greenest games ever, while others are saying they are among the least sustainable games ever held. Climate change is a concern for sporting events, which is why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been improving the sustainability profile of Olympic events in recent years. Last year the IOC announced that all of its upcoming events would be carbon-neutral and, as by 2030, the Olympic games will be “climate positive”.
There is good reason for organizers of sporting events to be concerned about climate change. In addition to being a threat to global stability, climate change is a threat to many sporting events including the Olympic games. Both the winter and the summer games are feeling the effects of climate-related issues. Global warming is putting the Winter Olympics in doubt in many places around the world and the summer games are plagued by ever-increasing heat.
The Tokyo Games have the ignominious distinction of being the hottest Olympics in history. As reported by Joe Lo and Marlene Jacobsen in Climate Change News, heat caused athletes like Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva to pass out while others like Spanish tennis player Paula Badosa was forced to withdraw and taken off the court in a wheelchair due to heatstroke. Those who manage to persevere are often pushing themselves to the limit of human endurance. Norwegian triathlete Kristian Blummenfelt vomited after his gold medal performance.
As reviewed by Katie Herzog in a 2016 Grist article, a report from Brazil’s Climate Observatory, claimed the heat is making it harder for athletes to set new records. They noted the fact that after years of steadily improving performances, marathon times are getting slower.. As the warming trend continues it is entirely likely that athletes could die from extreme heat. Some high-level athletes have been forced to end their sporting careers due to climate change. This is the sad reality for people like Australia’s international netball player Amy Steel who was forced to retire after suffering heatstroke during a pre-season game five years ago.
So it should come as no surprise that Sustainability was at the top of the agenda of the Tokyo summer games. The guiding principle of the games was: “Be better, together – for the planet and the people”. This event showcased sustainability solutions and was billed as the greenest Olympics ever. It was fully powered by renewable energy and according to the organizers it will go down in history as the first-ever carbon-negative Olympics.
Waste and recycling
The goal was a zero-waste event with 99 percent of all goods procured for the games being reused or recycled. The 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals were cast from metals salvaged from nearly 79,000 metric tons of smartphones and other electronic waste donated by the Japanese public. The medal podiums were made out of recycled plastic waste. The Olympic torch was produced from aluminum waste and the torchbearers wore T-shirts and trousers made from recycled plastic bottles. The Olympic and Paralympic cauldrons were lit using clean hydrogen fuel, which was also used to power electricity and hot water in dormitories, cafeterias and training facilities in the Olympic village. This space was then transformed into hydrogen-powered flats, a school, shops and other facilities.
Facilities and transportation
Rather than build new facilities the organizers retrofitted 25 existing venues with high efficiency technologies. Equipment was rented rather than bought (computers, tablets, electrical appliances, office desks, chairs, etc.). The Athlete’s transportation was supplied by Toyota’s electric e-Palette vehicles, a fleet of 500 hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) cars, and 100 FCEV buses. Olympians slept on beds made from recycled cardboard and the mattresses are being recycled into plastic products. The organizers also sought to comply with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as well as investing in biodiversity restoration.
The most contentious issue was the game’s use of carbon credits to offset emissions*. Weeks before the event began, organizers purchased 150 percent of carbon credits required to offset the games’ greenhouse gas emissions. The Tokyo Olympics’ decarbonization strategy helped reduce the event’s carbon footprint from 2.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) to 2.73 million tonnes. Carbon offsetting covered all direct and indirect emissions, including transport and construction. Under Japan’s carbon cap-and-trade program, carbon credits offset around 720,000 metric tons of CO2 emitted by the games and the remaining emissions were offset by 4.38 million metric tons worth of carbon credits.
Accusations of greenwashing
However, not everyone agrees that these were the world’s most sustainable Olympic Games. Some have criticized the use of carbon credits and dismissed sustainability efforts as “superficial” As reported by Jennifer Hahn, a new study found that the Tokyo Olympics were the third-least sustainable Olympics since 1992. One of the study’s authors called the Tokyo organizing committees green claims “superficial”. He also called these efforts “important” but he said they were “limited” and “not enough” These are the views of David Gogishvili, who is co-author of a peer-reviewed study of the games conducted by the University of Lausanne. Gogishvili said the games were too big and he decried the hypocrisy of recycling while failing to ban plastic. The report said that the increasing size of the Olympics is making them worse, not better. The report suggested that the best way to make the games more sustainable is to downsize.
There were also other criticisms including claims that some of the timber used was linked to deforestation and some of the renewable energy produced was generated from biomass. However, the use of carbon offsets represents the core of the criticisms. This was not the first Olympics to offset its carbon emissions. BP offset the 2012 London Olympics and Dow worked with its partners to offset the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
The problem with carbon credits and offsetting
The problem with carbon credits and carbon offsetting is that they often take the place of reducing emissions. Oil companies, freight shipping, and airlines are looking at carbon credits to continue to emit greenhouse gases. While carbon credits/offsets like protecting forests and restoring natural ecosystems is effective it is not a substitute for emissions reduction and is too often used as a justification to continue with business as usual. Although they can be an effective stop-gap measure on the road to zeroing out emissions, they cannot replace economy-wide efforts to end emissions altogether. Simply put they will never be able to keep temperatures from exceeding the upper threshold temperature limit. At best they can help us to get to zero emissions at worst they can be mere public relations ploys that serve as a distraction that gives polluters a license to keep polluting.
There are also serious concerns about the ways that carbon offsetting can undermine climate justice and contribute to climate colonialism that exacerbates inequality between the Global South and the developed world. According to colonialism scholar Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, climate colonialism is “the domination of less powerful countries and peoples by richer countries through initiatives meant to slow the pace of climate breakdown.” It is far cheaper to set up carbon offsetting in the Global South and this can translate to violations of the basic rights of Indigenous people.
Despite the criticisms, the Tokyo Olympics were vastly superior to the games in Rio and Sochi.
*Carbon offsets: An action intended to compensate for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of industrial or other human activity, especially when quantified and traded as part of a commercial program.
*Carbon credits: A permit which allows a country or organization to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions and which can be traded if the full allowance is not used.